The new international thriller film Our Kind of Traitor, based on a 2010 novel by master spy raconteur John LeCarré, is surprisingly inspiring. A Russian mobster, threatened by a murderous crime rival protected by Moscow, demands refuge from British intelligence by way of a British tourist in Morocco, played by Ewan McGregor.
Surprisingly because LeCarré, himself an MI6 veteran who’s churned out morally complex espionage potboilers for 50 years, is often darkly cynical and probably didn’t intend his story to inspire any Americans. As a teenager, I loved his spy trilogy starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, focusing on a devoted British counterintelligence officer, George Smiley, hunting for a Soviet mole within his London-based agency. Part two, The Honourable Schoolboy, includes a detour through Hong Kong, where the local British spy chief, after Saigon’s fall, salutes his American counterpart for now, like himself, representing a second rate power. In part three, Smiley’s People, the hero of sorts finally compels his longtime Soviet rival to defect, although the triumph is less than satisfying.
All of the British-accented sophistication and very un-James Bond-like understatement likely helped inspire my aspiration to work for the CIA, which I did do for a time. LeCarré maybe would be surprised that his work motivated anyone to serve the CIA, which is subtly villainized in his earlier works, and much more so later. His stories of recent years demonize the U.S. and international corporations, plus sometimes Israel, while typically finding some half-way noble British souls who struggle against insurmountable global forces. Sometimes LeCarré is chided as not a leftist but a retro British snob of the old right discomfited by Americans, Jews, and capitalists who displaced the British empire and class system.
LeCarré, whatever his slant, remains a superb storyteller who, behind his veneer of cynicism, likely retains a romantic view of his own native land, however submerged beneath U.S.-led globalism. Our Kind of Traitor predictably features corrupt British politicians and bankers seduced by the blandishments of Russian criminal wealth. But in the end a British teacher and his barrister consort, aligned with a lower level civil servant, prevail against high-end corruption, and British rule of law prevails against Russian mafia-aligned autarky.
The Russian mobster who seeks MI6 protection assumes that British law, decency, and propriety, however pockmarked with its own corruptions, will ultimately protect him from Russian billionaire mobsters with support from their kleptocratic authoritarian regime. LeCarré’s English patriotic romanticism endures against his deeply layered weary disenchantment.
I reflected on this enduring view of England as the lawful sceptered isle of liberty when later watching a wonderful documentary about London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral on the night of December 29/30, 1940 during the worst of the German blitz on Britain. German bombers generated a unique firestorm in what came to be called the Second Great Fire of London, amplified by Germany’s strategically choosing a night of low tides for the Thames River, depriving firefighters of ready water.
The flames encircled great St. Paul’s, which fire watchers in league with the cathedral dean battled to protect, searching the roof for any sparks needing to be extinguished. They magnificently and miraculously succeeded. The fruit included a heroic photo showing the dome swathed in searchlights and reigning over a burning city, which went viral, appearing globally in newspapers, even in Nazi Germany. Another powerful photo from the cathedral roof shows the surrounding inferno with a saintly statue bearing a cross in the foreground.
This iconic scene embodies embattled, Christian England, defiant against foreign tyrannies alien to law and decency. Few British may still actively worship in such churches. But the church’s moral legacy endures in British law and democracy, where refuge is still sought, even by a fictional Russian mobster in the mind of a cynic like LeCarré.